Digital Pens and Pads for Vector Scribbling

As part of my ongoing fascination with alternate input devices and especially as a tactile/visual thinker, I’ve been researching digital pens. I’m also intrigued as a designer by the core problems of this kind of device and the range of solutions. Ultimately, I want something I can sketch smart UML and UI diagrams with and have them convert to running software 😉

As a side-inspiration, Sarah Zettel’s excellent novel The Fool’s War includes pen-based UI in the spaceships where a special pen is used to access information and sign the log as an authentication device.


I’ve owned a CrossPad for a few years and it’s effectively retired, largely because of the heft and age of software. The CrossPad was a combination digitizing tablet and pen so you recorded strokes in the pad as you drew with the pen, giving you an instant ink copy. The software included mediocre OCR and it used a serial connection.

A later incarnation seems to be the DigiMemo which adds USB and can function as a realtime graphics tablet. The DigiMemo .DHW format files can be converted to SVG using a third-party script, by Kevin Lindsey. Other OEM branded devices are the Adesso Cyberpad and AipTek MyNote.

There are a number of such tablet devices out there and a UK site devoted to their sale with some charmingly awkward user reviews is Digital notepad.

The .TOP file format is one of the dominant formats saved by these devices and Gadgetoid raved about the cross-platform third-party VectorPen software which converts .DHW, .DNT and .TOP files to PDF and SVG.


Pens with a small clipboard receiver are attractive because they allow the pen to be smaller than the paper-based ones below and have no inbuilt cost of special paper. The latter is a big selling point.

Peter Steieir dismisses the IRISNotes due to poor software, especially the difficulty of getting vectors back out because it writes to a proprietary .pegvf file. That’s the same format as the IOGear Mobile DigitalScribe which I’ve seen locally.

Getting more details on the DigitalScribe took a bit of digging but I eventually found their manuals and software on the support site. From these I was able to work out that the pen has no way to navigate back to previous pages. This may just be a limitation of this model or inbuilt in the OEM’s design but I think it’s a fairly fundamental weakness.

The Amazon reviews of the DigitalScribe include a useful tip that the Staedtler Multi-Action Pen refills fit. A common theme is that the receiver clip only manages a few sheets of paper so you can’t clip it to the top of the typical top-bound legal pad.

Pens with Paper

An alternative to the standalone pen is the Anoto technology which uses unique microdots on special paper. You can get a 500 euro demo kit directly from them but the Livescribe below is a cheaper way to experiment. They commonly partner with companies delivering forms-based applications such as simPRO. The big deal about the Anoto technology is being able to map all pen actions back to specific locations on the paper including having what amounts to buttons on paper – clickable areas to trigger pen actions.

Livescribe seems to be one of their dominant partners in the consumer space, with the Pulse pen supported in Australia by Smartpen. As well as being commonly retailed, rather than bundled with specialist software, the Pulse adds audio which is linked to your strokes on paper and replayable within the pen or desktop.

The Livescribe Platform allows for developing custom applications which recognise special areas on the paper, coupled with logic in the pen to provide the recognition. The release notes provide a nice summary of the steady development of the product over the last two years. The Pulse user manual is also online. This 2009 review includes an example of how well the strokes are captured and how the audio capture of the Pulse is linked to paper areas.

With a sufficiently high-resolution (600dpi+) color laserprinter, the Livescribe desktop software allows you to print your own paper or you can order pre-printed pads from OfficeWorks and other stationery suppliers.